Telling the story: Photographer Gregory Crewdson manufactures perfection

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Gregory Crewdson’s photography is infused with a sense of melancholic isolation as in “Untitled, 2004.” Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Gregory Crewdson’s photography is infused with a sense of melancholic isolation as in “Untitled, 2004.” Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

An old sedan turns right onto an empty main street. Its tires pull smooth black strokes through a cover of newly fallen snow. The street is quiet, the sky filled with the ash gray of early morning or early evening.

At first glance (and at small scale), the photograph could have been taken by a hobbyist, or a real estate developer. Upon closer examination, Gregory Crewdson’s image from his series, “Beneath the Roses” (2002-2008), reveals itself as a meticulously crafted scene: All the streetlights have turned yellow in unison, the sky matches the snowy ground perfectly in tone and shade, the angles of the window blinds in the buildings, the shafts of light from a sidewalk restaurant, and the dark figure passing under the marquee of a one-theatre movie house are all carefully arranged. Crewdson is creating a moment—he is telling a story in a single frame.

Two of Crewdson’s large scale prints are on display in LOOK3’s “Work & Process: Beneath the Roses and Sanctuary” at Second Street Gallery for the month of June. The exhibition features photographic evidence of his process, including production stills and lighting design sketches, and offers a rare chance to peek behind the making of the sleek finished images that frequently hang on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in first-tier museums and galleries around the world.

“The show will explore how he develops and plans to execute a project, and how it becomes what we see up on the wall,” explained LOOK3 Managing Director Andrew Owen. “I think this is just a fascinating concept for a show about [Crewdson]. He’s thinking about every minute detail as it creates the entire composition, what ties it all together—what we usually expect from still life photographers, or fashion studio photographers.”

Crewdson’s portfolio bridges the interstice between traditional photography and modern cinema. Whether capturing a car on a lonely street, an abandoned building, a woman taking a bath, or the more surreal impression of a woman floating in her darkly flooded living room, Crewdson is in the director’s chair (he admits he hasn’t taken a photograph with his own hands in nearly a decade), instructing his camera operator, and working to capture a moment that embodies intimate human experiences, as well as the isolation and artifice that pervades society, and the art world.

“What I’ve always been after is a picture that tells a story,” Crewdson has said. “I see it all in my head beforehand, and I set out obsessively—maybe even narcissistically—to make it.” “Make” being the operative word. Unlike most photographers, who capture moments of beauty, or horror, or oddity in the world around them (like Diane Arbus, one of Crewdson’s childhood obsessions), Crewdson is an architect of images, a manufacturer of his own vision of perfection.

“He has said that he wants to create a moment more perfect than could exist in real life,” said Owen, “I don’t think he means emotionally, but compositionally—the angle of light, a car door open as it sits on the side of the street.”

Many of his large-scale photographs are built on soundstages, and employ teams of up to 60 artists and craftsmen to produce them—production designers, makeup artists, actors, lighting designers, and architects. Crewdson’s team shoots primarily with an 8″ x 10″ film camera on a tripod, and will often take 50 contacts of exactly the same frame, with varying focuses. The nearly identical images are then scanned in high resolution and stitched together digitally in post-production to produce one seamless image.

In doing so, Crewdson is essentially erasing the evidence of the photographic process, composing the entire image in clear focus, without blurring or grain. Crewdson explained the motivation for this painstaking process as a means to more fully engage the viewer: “When somebody is looking at my picture,” he told Aperture Magazine, “I want them just to fall into the world of the world of the photograph…Anything that moves against that transparency is too much about the medium. I’ve always said, if I could figure out a way to do this without a camera, I would…I don’t want pixels, I just want pure image.”

“Crewdson’s work came to the public during the 1980s, 1990s interest in the domestic,” explains Pamela Pecchio, assistant professor of art at UVA, a former student of Crewdson’s in Yale’s graduate photography department and his production manager and assistant in 2001 and 2002. “It was a time of looking inward, away from the street. Likely not by coincidence, politics at the time were also moving into the home. There was the 1991 Peter Galassi show at MoMA, ‘Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort,’ which Crewdson was in. The photography world was buzzing, the modernists sticking to their guns and the post-modernists trying to change the conversation.”

Critics make much of Crewdson’s psychological history—his psychoanalyst father’s office in the basement of his family’s Park Slope brownstone, strict instructions to ignore his father’s patients on the street—as the seed of the melancholic isolation that infuses his work.

Like Edward Hopper, whom Crewdson claims as “profoundly influential,” Crewdson’s characters are often staring out into the middle ground, suspended, vacant, and wax-like. The similarities between their work is notable enough that they have even been exhibited alongside each other (Williams College Museum of Art, “Drawing on Hopper: Gregory Crewdson/Edward Hopper,” October 12, 2006-April 15, 2007), highlighting the artistic expression the pair both seem to be driving after, which the WCMA curator describes as “the suspended moment before or after an event and the psychological effect on the principal character…a sense of alienation, unresolved emotion, and ambiguity.”

The show at Second Street also includes images from “Sanctuary” (2009), a series of smaller scale black and white photographs of Rome’s fabled Cinecittà film studios, in a nod to the cinematic influence he is known for.

Pecchio first saw the show with Yale photography classmates, and said they were “struck by its relationship to the history of photography and iconic American photographers like Walker Evans, for example, and were reminded of Gregory’s deep love and understanding of photography.” The studio’s lots are empty, sparse in comparison to Crewdson’s interiors, and they are, in Pecchio’s words, a meditation on “light, space, decay, and fortitude.”

Though Crewdson’s production process references Hollywood, what his images offer the audience is an evocative moment, but no real narrative, and certainly no conclusion. “In film,” said Owen, “there is almost always a resolution. With Gregory’s photographs, there’s no resolution. You don’t know what’s going to happen next or what happened before it. He plays on our fears—we make projections based on what we’ve been socialized to recognize.” Crewdson cues the mood music, and leaves the audience with a moment of suspense that is unending.

Alex Chadwick, co-creator of NPR’s Morning Edition, hosts a conversation with Gregory Crewdson on Saturday, June 15, followed by a book signing at Second Street Gallery at 6:30pm. More information is available at www.look3.org.

Gregory Crewdson “Work & Process: Beneath the Roses and Sanctuary” Second Street Gallery, June 7-29.

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